America must promote a democratic culture that bolsters human rights

21st September 2018

The tragic anniversary of 9/11 provides us with an annual opportunity to take stock of the successes and failures of our counter-terrorism policy. The business of analyzing our performance to date constitutes an appropriate commemoration of that world-shaking day.

A consensus is now consolidating amongst scholars with respect to the proper direction of anti-extremism practice in the global context. The US Institute of Peace’s interim report on Protecting America From Extremism in Fragile States, summarizes that perspective as follows:

“In fragile states, governments lack legitimacy, and institutions struggle or fail to provide basic public goods—security, justice, and services. An effective strategy to combat extremism needs to tackle both the conditions that gave extremism a chance to take root in a society and the behavior of actors that spawned these conditions in the first place.”

This understanding of counter-extremism theory is a persuasive one. Peace-based intervention that promotes humanitarian aid and cultural respect are the roots of building a healthy society in which there is a greater prospect of tackling, and eventually halting extremism.

President Donald Trump appeared, broadly speaking, to echo that perspective in his speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit. There was promise in his words.

“We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

He also opined:

“That goal is to meet history’s great test—to conquer extremism and vanquish the forces of terrorism. Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred. And young Muslim men and women should have the chance to build a new era of prosperity for themselves and their peoples.”

The President’s words speak to a philosophy of American intervention that prizes societal stability.  These words are a step in the right direction. However, if such idealism is to progress beyond mere rhetoric, the United States itself must act as a leader in promoting these valuable objectives. In other words, America must set the precedent in promoting an authentic democratic culture that bolsters human rights.

When Donald Trump praises Tayyip Erdogan after winning the questionable Turkish referendum or congratulates Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte “on an incredible job on the drug problem” which left 12,000 of his people dead, what message does this send to those who value an improved global culture? The same point can be made about the President’s description of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un “a talented man” who “loves his country very much” or saying thatPresident Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt has “done a tremendous job under trying circumstance.”

The picture on the domestic front is similarly unedifying. From referring to Colin Kaepernick as a “Son of a B****” for his protests at the killing of unarmed black men and calling the U.S.’ handling of the Puerto Rico hurricane in which 3,000 people died amidst tentative action from administration “an unsung success,” these words undermine the President’s important message at the Arab Islamic American summit. Similar implications can be inferred when he referred to neo-Nazi’s as “very fine people” in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville protests.

Civil wars and political unrest impact the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. Against that backdrop of instability and misery, now is the time for America to take the lead. We must do more to promote the good health of society, at home and abroad. The recognition and promotion of fundamental human rights is key to that process. If the common understanding of best way to halt the march of extremism is to move from theory to common practice, the United States must take the lead and do more to demonstrate that our nation is dedicated to a more stable and peaceful future.